Bonnie Alexander

Becoming Victim: Womanhood and Masochism


The 1990s were something of a renaissance for modern girlhood. I emerged from a girl-power-inundated childhood, spilling over with messages of empowerment from sources as diverse as sports organizations, T-shirts, the Spice Girls, and all manner of school supplies. My binder, in garish silver-sparkle cursive, proclaimed: “Girls Rock!” I believe I owned shoelaces that professed the same. Most books gifted me by relatives were enthusiastically-titled collections about girl power: Women Who Dared; Girls Who Changed the World!

With unsurprising parallels to the way mainstream history about race relations is taught in American public schools, all the messages that I received around womanhood and sexism in my youth revolved around a central message of accomplishment: things used to be very sexist, and now they are not. Women can do anything men can. Girl power!

My lived experience as a child, for better or for worse, largely mirrored this messaging. I was situated in a comfortable, white, middle-class existence. And as a precocious child, gifted athletically as well as academically, it was easy to internalize a message of “girl power”: not only was I as smart as the boys, but I was as fast as they were, and as strong as they were. And this was the status quo for my youth: while I fell into feminist philosophy early and hard, it was largely historicized in my mind: I was a modern girl, capable of anything to which I put my mental and physical might.

My happy, empowered girl-power bubble was popped at a high school rager that I attended at age 17. It took place in a large house, devoid of furniture or decorations because someone was about to move (or perhaps had already moved). I wandered away from the epicenter of the party, into an empty room where the bass of the music was faint and I no longer heard the voices of the revelers. Gathering myself before I returned to the unfamiliar jungle, I was joined by someone. He was a football player, he explained as he introduced himself—his first name was Brad, as a high percentage of high school football players are known—and I realized immediately that I knew him by his reputation with girls at our school.

We spoke, and he moved closer to me. Over and over again. I stepped back, he moved forward. I kept stepping back because he was so much taller, and I didn't like to crane my neck when I talked. He was drunk enough to be slurring a bit, and was mostly telling me about how much he lifted and how many inches he was trying to gain around his biceps. And very rapidly I realized how very far from the rest of the party I was, and how very, very small my body was, and for the first time in my life I thought: If we fight each other, I will lose. This person can rape me.

Perhaps this is the affective state of being-woman in the modern age: being potential-victim. Or perhaps this is your material condition: existing in a state of not-safe-enough. To be a woman walking around in the world very nearly elides the two.

Few writers tackle this concept as brashly and controversially as French feminist Virginie Despentes. In her novella-manifesto King Kong Theory, she examines and revels in Camille Paglia’s idea that the potential for rape is a sort of “price-of-admission” that some women pay to be in the world. “Paglia helped us think of ourselves as warriors…ordinary victims of what you have to expect you may endure if you're a woman and you want to venture out into the wild.”

If we take Despentes’ concept of being a woman in public as venturing into some sort of risky wilderness as true, then the embodied experience of modern womanhood is indeed an inherently unsafe one- or that “safety” and the ability to move freely in the world are mutually exclusive privileges for a woman.

Popular feminism has tried a number of avenues to address the lack of safety in public, and especially the routine street harassment faced by women daily. Happily, this movement recognizes misogyny as structural, rather than an individual problem. We have HollaBack, an early attempt to raise awareness of sexual harassment by taking photos of the perpetrator and posting them online (this, of course, requires them not to become violent when you pull out your phone to take their picture). We’ve seen viral videos following women around cities, revealing the gauntlet of unwanted attentions that a city becomes when you are an unaccompanied woman. SlutWalk exists to reject the premise that there is a “deserving” victim of assault. One of my favorite responses to the "wilderness" of being a woman in public comes from an Israeli graffiti artist who renders each experience of harassment in the very place that it happened on the street, complete with a date and time stamp. The city itself becomes a map of her physical vulnerability. But in focusing on the naming, the calling-out, the making-visible-of the individual subjective experiences of sexism, these projects fail to empower their subjects. They lack claws.

They lack claws because the image of womanhood has not yet been expanded to an existence that is not potential-victim. We learn to relate to ourselves in this way. My own experience of becoming a woman—namely, becoming a woman in public—also coincides with my becoming a sexual agent—engaging in queerness and kink, discovering my own sexual autonomy. This brings me to the connection of the public and the personal—whilst suddenly morphing into a woman in the world (and thus, adopting an affective state of maybe-victim), I was also exploring kink for the first time—how to become a consensual “victim” in the bedroom.

I was simultaneously becoming a woman, which is becoming a potential-victim, and taking on the behaviors of such a condition: keys clenched between fingers like when walking home at night, planning my routes according to ratios of good lighting and population density. Taking wide berths around vans parked on the sidewalk. Taking all good and proper care not to actually become-victim. Meanwhile, my sex life was rife with the opposite: asking to become victim. Asking for violence, asking for disempowerment. Seeking the exploitation of my own vulnerability, desiring abuse and domination. Becoming-victim, but not really.

Deleuze, in Masochism, is quick to point out that the masochist is not a victim in the traditional sense:

We are no longer in the presence of a torturer seizing upon a victim and enjoying her all the more because she is unconsenting and unpersuaded. We are dealing instead with a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade, and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realize the strangest of schemes.

And so there I found myself, trying to realize the “strangest of schemes,” to become-victim in fantasy rather than reality. When my queer BDSM desires crashed headlong into the booze-fueled college experience, I fell in with a very kinky woman. We hit the ground running: the first time we had sex, she tied me up and dominated me, and we never looked back.

Lesbian kink has been one of the most interesting points of departure for the conflicting options of female sexual autonomy. To enact a BDSM scene between women is an adherence to and a departure from Sacher-Masoch’s fur-clad woman-abuser (a “despotic woman,” as Deleuze says) and her humiliated male victim. Instead, one woman becomes the Venus, and one becomes the victim. A female victim in these circumstances, without the cover of masculinity, perhaps lacks a little of the inherent humiliation when dominated by Venus that Sacher-Masoch’s men receive. But a female victim plays in the grey area of reality: entering, for fantasy, into the state of potential that hovers over her all of the time.

Today’s consensual, sadomasochistic kink play has far more in common with Sacher-Masoch (and Deleuze’s analysis of Sacher-Masoch) than it does with Sade. I think Sade, as a true sadist and torturer, would find himself limited in most modern kink spaces, in which safety masquerades as the unsafe.

My experiences in college became rougher, more intense, and drunker. With familiarity, our kink play gained momentum and intensity and our verbalization around it diminished. Increasingly, our play had less to do with Sacher-Masoch and more to do with Sade. Affirmations of consent became less and less important. Ostensibly, it was because we were more comfortable with each other and already aware of our boundaries. In reality we were drunker. The necessary “contractual relations” of the masochist were disappearing, and I found myself blending the roles of victim-in-play with victim-in-life. When you’ve signed up for victimhood without outlining the terms of the contract, you get a little closer to destroying the fantasy part of a masochistic perversion. If you’re not a victim of your own doing, maybe you’re just a victim.

To be woman is to be unsafe; a potential-victim. To be masochist is to desire victimhood, but thwart its true form with negotiations, safeguards. And identifying as a combination of the two puts one into an interstitial place of a wanted and unwanted lack of safety.

Is occupying the gray space of potential victimhood a contingency of being a woman? Does it make a difference if the potential victimhood is a desired, engineered state? Does play-acting the real thing take the teeth out of the thing itself, or are we simply gazing at different levels of patriarchal subjugation? If being a woman is a materially precarious state, it is difficult to determine whether lesbian kink helps us to subvert or reinforce that state. Deleuzian masochism suggests a subversion, though his emphasis on male submission prevented the potential feminist repercussions from being fully realized.

Lesbian kink—woman as Venus and woman as victim—plays with vulnerability that permeates women’s lives. Victimhood is both inflicted and embodied, making lesbian kink unique in its powerful position of examining womanhood in its context. Its practice is not inherently subversive or revolutionary, and blending sexual fantasy-disempowerment with real-world victimization is all too easy—but it paves the way for new mappings of womanhood and victimhood. When lesbian kink plays both sides of the power imbalance for gratification, it becomes a primary tool for rethinking states of sexual vulnerability. And “play” is the operative term—lesbian BDSM can make playful one of the most menacing aspects of the state of womanhood.

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